What Wondrous Things One Can Learn from Toothpaste Manufacturing

Posted on April 24, 2012 by Blake Leath

A tale about toothpaste manufacturing—from which we all can learn a thing or two. It comes to me by way of a client, who has submitted it to snopes.com, in the hope of getting to the bottom of it.

A toothpaste factory had a problem: they sometimes shipped empty boxes without the tube inside. This was due to the way the production line was set up, and people with experience designing production lines will tell you how difficult it is to have everything occur so precisely that every single unit coming off the line is perfect 100% of the time. Small variations in the environment (which can’t be controlled in a cost-effective fashion) mean one must have quality assurance checks smartly distributed throughout the line so customers all the way down at the supermarket don’t get angry and buy another product instead.

Understanding how important this is, the CEO of the toothpaste factory got the top people in the company together and they decided to start a new project in which they would hire an external engineering company to solve their empty boxes problem, as the engineering department was already too stretched to take on any extra effort.

The project followed the usual process: budget and project sponsor allocated, RFP, third-parties selected, and six months (and $8 million) later they had a fantastic solution—on time, on budget, high quality and everyone involved in the project had a great time.

They solved the problem by using high-tech precision scales that would sound a bell and flash lights whenever a toothpaste box weighed less than it should. The line would stop, and someone would walk over and yank the defective box off it, pressing another button when done to re-start the line.

A while later, the CEO decided to have a look at the ROI of the project: amazing results!  No empty boxes ever shipped out of the factory after the scales were put in place. Very few customer complaints, and they were gaining market share. “That’s some money well spent,” he said, before looking closely at the other statistics in the report.

As it turned out, the number of defects picked up by the scales was 0 after three weeks of production use. It should’ve been picking up at least a dozen a day, so maybe there was something wrong with the report? He filed a bug against it and, after some investigation, the engineers came back and said the report was actually correct. The scales really weren't picking up any defects, because all boxes that got to that point on the conveyor belt were good.

Puzzled, the CEO traveled down to the factory and walked up to the part of the line where the precision scales were installed.  A few feet before the scale, there was a $20 desk fan blowing the empty boxes off the belt and into a bin.

“Oh, that,” remarked a worker, “One of the guys put it there ’cause he was tired of walking over every time the bell rang."